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Where Is the Past Located?

Do we all look forward to what lies ahead?

According to the conceptual metaphor theory developed by linguists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, when we talk about a concept that is too abstract to grasp, we often need to resort to vocabulary pertaining to a similar but more concrete concept. For instance, given that time is such an intangible and ephemeral concept that cannot be perceived directly by any sensory organ, we often talk about it using phrases that belong to the more concrete domain of space. Just consider the following expressions: The meeting was too long. The end of the fiscal year is getting closer. The time for action has arrived. The best part of the show is coming up. Let’s leave the past behind. The deadline is approaching. How many times have you used phrases like these without even realizing that you were implicitly equating time to space?

What is interesting is that the way we conceptualize time by mapping it into space seems to depend on the culture we come from, and the language we speak. For instance, in most Western societies, time is linear (e.g., time “passes," and it is not possible to “go back” in time, as the course of events is irreversible), and people graphically represent it through an “arrow of time” or “timeline” that moves toward the future. Moreover, for most people living in the West, the past is located behind, and the future is ahead. This contrasts with languages like Aymara, Toba, and Malagasy, which see the future as lying behind, and the past as lying in front of the speaker (the logic being that you can “see” the past, but not yet the future). In Chinese, on the other hand, time is portrayed as having a vertical orientation, with past times being “up" and future times being “down”: In fact, shànyuè (which means “last month”), can be literally translated as “up month," while xiàyuè (which means “next month”) can be literally translated as “down month."

Some of the influence of language on the way we conceptualize time as space seems to come from the writing direction we use. For instance, when English speakers (who write from left to write) are asked to arrange in chronological order a set of cards depicting different stages of development of an animal (e.g., tadpole, froglet, frog), they start from the left and move progressively toward the right. In contrast, Taiwanese people (who write from top to bottom) are more likely to arrange the same cards on a vertical axis, starting from the top, and progressively moving to the bottom. Interestingly, Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi speakers (who write from right to left) seem to prefer chronological arrangements that follow their writing direction.

So the next time you say to yourself that you are looking forward to what lies ahead, maybe consider that it may actually lie behind you—or on your left, or on your right...


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